by Pete Bianco
What happens as people in our community grow older, have health challenges and have no family members in the area to help them? Additionally, if they are physically unable to go out to buy food, or travel to medical appointments – but they are still capable of living on their own – how can they continue to live in their own homes?
About 40 years ago, Carole Grove and her husband Ed were living in Philadelphia. They were looking to move closer to their aging parents, who were living near Ithaca. Ed worked for General Electric and was offered a job in Utica. Ed took the offer and the two packed up to relocate.
After they were settled in Utica, Ed noticed a story that appeared in a local newspaper about an organization Carole had volunteered for in Philadelphia. The organization was called Your Neighbors. Your Neighbors mission was to provide home-bound people with meals. The program was so essential for those who received it that it had begun attracting national attention.
The Philadelphia group was encouraging other communities across the country to start similar programs. They even offered to help individuals set up these new programs.
Ed encouraged Carole to start a local group. At the time, Carole had two young children and couldn’t imagine how she would make time to take on this task in addition to raising her little ones. Travel demands with Ed’s job made it especially tough because Carole occasionally ended up being alone with the children for weeks at a time. Ed eventually persuaded her to call the Philadelphia group for information so that, when the timing was right, they could pursue it.
When Carole contacted the Philadelphia group, they told her they had received funding to make duplicating the program in other communities possible. But, there was one catch; the program had to be started that year.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Carole took on the added responsibility and started Your Neighbors, Incorporated. Before starting the program, Carole met with the Oneida County Health Department which approved all of the necessary procedures. The approval was conditioned upon the fact that a meal tray never be reused and that the program self-impose a three month expiration date on frozen meals.
Also, at this time, Ralph Eannace, who is now a Utica City Court Judge, was just returning to the area, having completed his education as an attorney. Betty Abel, from the East Side Senior Center, connected Ralph and Carole to set up a legal framework for Your Neighbors – pro bono. Today, Lutheran Care of Central New York in Clinton provides Your Neighbors with accounting services, benefits and an office for their director.
Your Neighbors provides ready-to-eat frozen meals that just need to be reheated. When volunteers deliver to a person, they get up to ten meals and four soups. In order to be eligible to receive meals, a person must have a reference from an agency like visiting nurses, the office for the aging, or a doctor’s referral. There is no age restriction on who is eligible. The meals arrive in freezable containers, similar to a TV-dinner, with compartments and all the meals are prepared by and provided by volunteers.
In the beginning this was primarily a Judeo-Christian venture. Since that time, Your Neighbors Inc. has expanded their services to include giving people rides to the grocery store and medical appointments.
Volunteers would show up at a church or synagogue with the food already prepared, as if they were going to a potluck or bringing a dish to pass at supper. All of the dishes are set out on tables and the groups begin filling their freezable containers. Having everyone bring their own contribution to the meal ensured there would be variety for those who were receiving the meals. In this manner, they generally package about 100 meals per hour.
The difference between a service like Your Neighbors and the more
commonly known Meals on Wheels is that the latter provides a hot meal on a daily basis. Besides volunteering to donate food, Your Neighbors volunteers also drive clients to get groceries and bring them to medical appointments. For those who don’t have family members to assist them, these services are invaluable.
If the people receiving the meals have an extra serving or two, it can be frozen and donated back to the program. More recently, restaurants like Hart’s Hill Inn and Karam’s Middle East Bakery have gotten involved, packaging extra food for Your Neighbors.
Carole says, “This is the type of thing you would do for a neighbor in need, bring them a meal, give them a ride to the store, bring them to the doctor’s office and accompany them during the medical consult if they so choose.”
From January 1st to October 31st 2019, Your Neighbors has provided 5,704 meals and 2,111 soups to their 389 recipients in the community. There are 895 active clients in the program, including those who receive non-food services.
Unfortunately, last month, Your Neighbors had to turn down eleven clients in need of medical rides due to a lack of volunteers. A majority of the clients in need are located in East Utica and Your Neighbors does not have any active church groups or volunteers from that part of Utica. If you have the time, please consider volunteering.
Volunteering is easy and flexible. You can do as much or as little as you like. If you are interested, your phone number is added to a master list. Clients generally get a few weeks’ notice for their medical appointments from their doctor’s offices. Your Neighbors coordinator then calls volunteers on the list to take the clients to their appointments. If you are free on that date, you can take on the appointment. If not, Your Neighbors continues to call volunteers until they find a match. Unlike the many top heavy organizations seen these days, Your Neighbors only has one paid staff member.